STRANGER THAN FICTION
We have seen a few examples of meta-fiction applied to film literary-based works like Providence (1977), The Neverending Story (1984) and sequels, I, Madman (1989), The Baby of Macon (1993), The Dark Half (1993), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Written By (2009), Ruby Sparks (2012) and Goosebumps (2015). The most celebrated meta-fictionist on film was Britains Dennis Potter in tv works like Double Dare (1976), The Singing Detective (1986) and Blackeyes (1989), all of which blur the line between reality and fiction in ingeniously dazzling ways. A modern equivalent of Potter is rapidly becoming Charlie Kaufman in works like Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, New York (2008). Probably the first film to tap into meta-fictional themes was the French Je Tu Il (1981), which has similarities to Stranger Than Fiction, where the central character gradually became aware that he is inside a book. There has also been the translation of the meta-fiction idea to the medium of film something that this author has named meta-film. This notion began with Woody Allens The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), which had the hero of a 1930s film step out of the screen into the real world, although the earlier The French Lieutenants Woman (1981) used meta-film in non-fantastic ways. Similar ideas appear in films like The Icicle Thief (1989), Last Action Hero (1993), Wes Cravens New Nightmare (1994), Rubber (2010) and Camera Shy (2012), while works like Delirious (1991) and Pleasantville (1998) apply meta-fiction to the medium of television.
The work that Stranger Than Fiction resembles the most is Dennis Potters Karaoke (1996), wherein an author discovers that the characters in his work have real-life counterparts, although there Potter eventually opted for a mundane resolution. There is also a great deal of similarity between Stranger Than Fiction and The Truman Show (1998), a quasi-meta-fictional piece wherein the central character makes the discovery that his entire life has been staged as a giant reality tv show. (The similarities between the two go beyond that both films star actors that have become known for their comedy roles (Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell) who used the film as a vehicle to demonstrate their capacity to be serious actors as well). Although perhaps more than any of these, Stranger Than Fiction comes closest to the Dutch film Waiter (2006), which was released almost around the same time, wherein a waiter experiences dissatisfaction to his writer over being a fictional character.
Stranger Than Fiction comes from director Marc Forster. Forster had previously directed Monsters Ball (2001) and the heavily fictionalised J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland (2004), both of which I had found overrated, as well as the interestingly flawed deathdream film Stay (2005) and subsequently the James Bond film Quantum of Solace (2008) and the zombie film World War Z (2013). As a result of Forsters work up to that point, I went into Stranger Than Fiction with no high expectations and ended up being pleasantly surprised. Forster does extremely good job. He quietly and unobtrusively allows the story and the characters to tell themselves. Stranger Than Fiction is not a film of unearned dramatics and false tensions, rather it is one where you sense that Forster is holding back and allowing the quietude of the characters to speak. Under another lesser director, Harold Crick could easily have had a standard arc where he goes from lifelessly dull to suddenly exploding with life and dancing in the streets with joy. Contrarily, Forster holds Will Ferrells performance in right until the end and this has the effect of allowing Ferrells surrender to the fate that Emma Thompson has given him to become nobly tragic. Forster and Zach Helm end the film on a feelgood note but this never arrives at a cliche upbeat surge but instead comes thoughtfully and with haunting effect. Zach Helm is a relative newcomer but turns in an exceptional script. It is written with a knowing literary wit and some very funny lines, especially those handed out to Dustin Hoffmans professor. You even come out convinced that the novel we hear being narrated may well have had the literary merit it is described as having.
I must admit to have found Will Ferrell an intensely annoying actor in films like Elf (2003), Bewitched (2005), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Blades of Glory (2007), Step Brothers (2008) and Land of the Lost (2009). In all of these, Ferrell plays with a boisterously irritating gregariousness that seems to be all but stomping his foot and demanding that audiences love him and give him attention. In Stranger Than Fiction, Ferrell is clearly trying to show that he can be a serious actor. The character that Ferrell is given is at totally opposing extreme to his regular over-the-top screen persona one where he is required to play down and seem as dull and anonymous as he possibly can. Certainly, Ferrell does this successfully, although the upshot of it is that almost every actor who surrounds Ferrell in the film ends up outshining him.
This is particularly the case when it comes to Maggie Gyllenhaal who is starting to seem an even more impressive actress with every film she does. She is the one who gives Stranger Than Fiction its life and heart even if one suspects the relationship between her sparkly, free-spirited anarchist and Will Ferrells lifelessly dull, anal retentive IRS agent is one of those unlikely attractions that only ever occurs in the realm of romantic comedy. There are a number of other fine performances in the film. Dustin Hoffman effortlessly holds the screen whenever he is around, while Queen Latifah projects a strength and certainty into what otherwise might have been a throwaway supporting role. It is only the great Emma Thompson who comes across as uncustomarily neurotic and never enlivens her character with the quirky sparkle that Thompson imbues most of her performances with.
Stranger Than Fiction also gave an amazing degree of buzz to the name of screenwriter Zach Helm when it came out. On the basis of Stranger Than Fiction, Helm was next handed the directorship of the magical toyshop film Mr Magoriums Wonder Emporium (2007).
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) at this sites Best of 2006 Awards).